It’s all the rage to talk about a Dystopia these days: a future filled with despair and desperation, not hope and joy. From The Hunger Games to The Walking Dead to Revolution to World War Z, there’s a ton of media offerings that depict a dark future where humanity has to learn to live in a reduced way than they do today.
So it is easy to talk about a dystopia. It is harder to talk about a future that looks brighter–and harder still to talk about how to get there.
This past week, we discussed four blog posts outlining techniques of megachurches. Each example church does these techniques well, and I wasn’t out to speak badly of them. Church of the Resurrection, in particular, was singled out not because they are a terrible church (the exact opposite!) but because I am afraid of the widespread effect of their practices. Their strategy is perfect for them and they execute it well. My argument, rather, is that widespread uncritical use of those techniques is problematic.
So I am fearful of the four techniques becoming more widespread without serious accountability and execution standards. That was the series last week. But it is not enough to critique without championing a better way to serve as a corrective to these techniques. There must be an approach to augment and channel these techniques into replicable approaches that better all of United Methodism.
One Reasonable Solution
The good news? The United Methodist Church, as a connectional entity, actually has a reasonable solution to most of the problematic elements. And as a connectional church, it is best positioned to show the non-denominational churches and independent churches the best way to counter these problematic elements in their own churches.
Here’s the one very simple but counter-intuitive suggestion:
Multi-site initiatives must take place in towns other than the one the large church is in.
Not across town. Not across the stream or the tracks. But in a town or region a particular distance away.
Crazy and unreasonable, right? Yes. But if you are also fearful of the dystopian future, here’s how this simple suggestion handles the four problematic approaches:
The first concern is the consumerism is an unchecked factor in a multi-site approach. By offering to take over smaller churches in strategic locations, the effect is that bigger churches do not have an incentive to help struggling churches turn themselves around until they enter into a relationship (be that partnership or abdication) with the bigger church.
- By using the simple requirement, large churches will be forced to do serious missional consideration and listen more to the local context because the town will not be as familiar to them. But likewise, the large church will be wanting to lift up and assist the small struggling churches in their town. Otherwise, another large church from another town could plant a multi-site in their town. Exceptions could be made, of course, I suppose.
- While this adds another level of bureaucracy and restrictions, it does counter the primary concern of consumeristic takeovers of small churches surrounding a larger church. If a church is missionally focused on a multi-site approach, doing a church of many houses in many towns will not dissuade their mission strategy.
The second concern is that piped sermons replaces a diverse connectional UMC presence with a uniform sub-franchise within United Methodism. The easy availability of megawatt high-capacity sermons coming digitally does not give local churches the incentive to opt-into different preachers or styles of ministry.
- By using the simple requirement, churches will be forced to move beyond their context into new contexts, where the sermons may or may not be applicable. The campus pastors of those multi-site locations could then re-preach the same sermon using their own examples, verbal quirks, and adaptions. Or they invert the sermon process: instead of one site sending their sermons to the multi-sites, this could lead to a writing of the sermons collaboratively with the senior pastor.
- While this negates the primary cost-cutting and celebrity benefit of piped sermons, it does counter the franchise tendency of a single voice taking over a multiplicity of locations. And instead of abdicating the pulpit to an external voice (or use the external voice once or twice a month rather than every week), it could lead to collaborative efforts that better both the relevancy of the piped message and the preaching skills of the campus pastors.
The third concern is that a production model of worship planning (what sermon series can we package and sell?) is not only theologically problematic but would lead to a drastic reduction in the use of the ecclesial discipline of The Lectionary. The comments on this topic were quite contentious with professors and liturgistas debating the lectionary/topical piece.
- By using this simple requirement….well, honestly, it does little to address this point. Out of the four dystopian futures, sermon series and production model of church are not dependent on multi-site locations. Although most multi-sites do use sermon series models, especially if they use piped sermons, it is not required nor really impacted by this suggestion.
- Instead, let me quote a friend who gave a case-study of how she converted a local church to using the Lectionary. This is Rev. Anna Tew, pastor of Perry Hill UMC in Montgomery, Alabama:
I then told them that we were going to tell the whole story of Jesus through the year – from the people crying out for a Savior, through his birth and life and death, resurrection, Pentecost, all of it. I also told them that we’d be doing this at the same time as Christians around the world. They loved it. I didn’t throw it on them as “we have to do this” – but more as “Christians have been doing this for a long time, and here’s why, and here’s why it still works today.” It’s a story that they get to experience – not some dead tradition that tells the preacher what to preach.
I think it’s incredibly important because it’s something the church does together – it connects Christians around the world as we relive the primary stories of our faith, over and over, instead of just what I as the pastor think would be a cute series. It broadens the church beyond its own doors to worship in unison with so many others. I can’t come up with any series that good.
- If a church is serious about ways to increase a one-ness of the church and resist the fragmentation that is felt ever more present in our daily lives, then using the Lectionary–and not writing out the possibility of it by using exclusively sermon series–ought to be a consideration.
The final concern is that pastoral leadership shifts dramatically with the increased use of multi-site efforts. No longer are preachers needed, but for every megachurch charismatic male preacher they need 5-10 campus pastors whose strengths are administration, nurture, and evangelism ministries. With the theological task outsourced, a caste system emerges with the megachurch recruiting the cream of the crop–and in some cases, hiring and firing their own clergy–while other churches that don’t fit into the multisite model are left with the “rest.”
- By using the simple requirement and creating more distance between sites, pastors will have to have more traditional skillsets than being mere implementers of the mothership’s resources. These pastors will become more missional and will report back how the mothership’s theology and practices gel with the other communities. Then even if there are piped sermons and resources coming directly from the top, the influence of different social groups and areas will result in more holistic preaching.
- While this seriously disrupts the evangelism model of multi-site (ie. they have figured out a culture, why not expand within that culture?), it does truly turn it to be missional rather than a distributed attractional model.
In short, the multi-site and production strategy has many incredible things going for it. And there are many incredible practitioners of these techniques. As a denomination, we are bettered by these practitioners and would do well to emulate them to a point. However, throughout this series we’ve discussed what might happen if these techniques become widespread.
It is my observation that perhaps the United Methodist Church is best suited to serve as a corrective to this multi-site movement not by limiting the mission field but by encouraging an expansion of it. By requiring multi-site plants to be beyond their borders, such campuses become more missional and less uniform in their expression of the mothership mission while retaining the ecclesiological concern of the original Methodist movement. Grandfathered current sites and exceptions can be made, of course.
Corrective measures seem at first to be backwards-moving and stifling of innovation. While it serves as a short-term “regulation” that may prohibit some multi-site efforts, in the long term encouraging “the world is my parish” mentality of multi-site initiatives could transform the entire movement to be more innovative, missional, and upholding of UMC ecclesiology than unchecked multi-site growth. The UMC is best positioned to make this positive contribution to this growing phenomenon.
Thoughts? Post below in the comments!
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